When Truth is Disturbing: Another Look at Wuthering Heights and the Purpose of Literature

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Flannery O’Connor

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, drew me in immediately, pulling me through every lurid page. Yet I felt oddly uncomfortable about how much I liked it as it is populated by selfish, angry, dysfunctional characters, only one of whom possesses much of a moral compass.

Like a good Catholic (I say that sarcastically), I tend to want to spend to time reading things that will edify or offer some great insight or meaningful lesson to take away, which I usually look for in Christian themes or uplifting messages. But this is exactly the attitude that Flannery O’Connor excoriated in her 1965 essay, “The Catholic Reader and the Catholic Novel,” in which she skewered the legions of “pious trash” that Catholics have written and that Catholics read. O’Connor argued that good art or literature has to be good in and of itself–that is, it must also be true. Something that disregards basic truths or doesn’t testify to them fully will inevitably be bad–no matter how pious.

She says, quoting Aquinas, “a work of art is good in itself…this is a truth that the modern world has largely forgotten.” When she cites him, she (and he) mean “good” in the metaphysical sense–that is the worth of the art comes from itself, not just from its relation to ideas we approve of. Goodness is one of the transcendentals; the others are truth, unity and beauty. Goodness, in this sense, is its desirability in so far as it exists, its ability to attract and move the will. It is a property co-existent with being, one that is not dependent on our feelings about it. To my judgement, “goodness” in a work of art will correlate with one or both of two things: its beauty and its truth.

In written work, with the exceptions of certain poetry, the value defaults to coming from truth. Then the value of being a Catholic writer or a Catholic work doesn’t come from having “uplifting” themes, but from being true, of offering real insight into reality and human understanding. Many secular works succeed at this; many Christian ones fail.

But, Catholic belief should be an effective instrument that contributes to a work’s goodness. Far from a shackle, O’Connor says, “dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality.” She further explains: “It is one of the functions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight.” Thus the Church’s understanding of the span of natural and supernatural realities is a magnificent insight that aids the artist or viewer in seeing and composing a true picture of the world.

Nevertheless, she says, the artist must still use her own eyes. The Church offers an extension of sight, not a replacement. O’Connor cautions that “When the Catholic novelist closes his own eyes and tries to see with the eyes of the Church, the result is another addition to that large body of pious trash for which we have so long been famous.” Just like grace does not exclude free will, the Catholic vision still demands the vision of the writer him or herself. Her insight is that Catholic literature is really anything that is true, but that something that pursues the whole scope of reality will inevitably be better. I think here of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Having established that good art is true. That leads me back to Wuthering Heights. Someone as wretched as the abusive Mr. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights still offers us a great catholic value; Healthcliff shows us a dark side of humanity, an anti-hero whose love, while real, is distorted and disordered and plays out to the harm of the generations, the cast of characters whom he taints.

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The Metaphysical Good of Children

girl-199x300From the Truth and Charity Forum: The Metaphysical Good of Children

“Too often we think children have value based on how the parents feel about them. Melissa Harris-Perry, host on MSNBC said in 2013, “When does life begin? I submit the answer depends an awful lot on the feeling of the parents. A powerful feeling – but not science.” That answer is trouble because it ignores actual reality in favor of feelings, granting to some humans’ feelings the status of ontological truth while simultaneously and incoherently denying value to other humans and their feelings. Feelings do matter, but they do not determine reality.

“Harris-Perry added that “An unwanted pregnancy can be biologically the same as a wanted one. But the experience can be entirely different.” This statement is true in itself. However, the reality of the child’s life and goodness is determined by the biology, not the experience of the parents. Granted, we ought to be very sensitive to the feelings of such women and seek to provide as much non-judgmental support as possible. However, the requirement of support stems precisely from the reality and goodness of the child who is already in existence and growing to maturity.

“I take this view from the classical metaphysics. Metaphysically speaking, everything that exists is good in the sense that it is willed and loved by God and expresses a perfection of being. Martin Vaske, S.J. explains in his Introduction to Metaphysics, “Unity, truth, and goodness are called transcendental properties because they are true of every being as being” (179). That means that everything that exists is good in so far as it exists, and this goodness, this desirability or lovableness is intrinsic to the being itself and not dependent on the perceptions of humans. He continues, “Beings have metaphysical, or ontological, truth independently of human knowledge; so also beings have metaphysical goodness independently of our willing them” (192).”

***

“It is, of course, true that there are real difficulties of raising children, such as sleep deprivation and potential financial strain. But these are simply part of the reality of life. If we can accept that, instead of viewing this as a massive injustice, we can start to enjoy the goodness that is before our eyes instead of looking around it to view only our inconvenience. Our happiness is served when we embrace reality and work with it, instead of trying to fight against it.”

Full article here.

http://www.truthandcharityforum.org/children-are-good-regardless-of-our-feelings/

The Purpose of Money; Metaphysics determines morality

A bit more here from a recent article I read from America Magazine, “Metaphysics and Money

Charity is not simply about making things better on earth. It has an evangelical content. The renunciation of wealth helps the poor, to be sure, but it also reveals something about the shape of the world God has made and how we might flourish in it.

Are the poor short-changed in this view? I do not think so. For the deeper question to be asked is, what funds our thirst for social justice in the first place? Helping the poor was not a virtue in Greco-Roman culture, nor is it esteemed by many libertarians—a philosophy that is alarmingly popular among the young. The sociologist Christian Smith has argued that the concern for the poor that is so prominent in the West had its origins in biblical religion. This raises an alarming possibility: absent the church’s metaphysical claims about wealth, will such concerns continue? Perhaps the story of the rich young man provides the necessary condition for the possibility of social justice.

The issue here is not how I can achieve greatness but what kind of world God has made. Only when we have grasped what type of world we live in can we figure out a strategy for flourishing in it. The teaching is more metaphysical than moral.

When Gary Anderson, the writer, points out that the Bible’s teaching about money is more metaphysical than moral, I wish he added that those two things (metaphysics and morals) are much more related than we tend to acknowledge. Metaphysics is about the nature of reality, the world and how it works. Morality is about how to live well–in a good way, not just having stuff. Morality then depends on metaphysics because in order to live well in reality, we need to understand the nature of the reality in which we live. Ie- how to be a good fish will be very different from how to be a good bird as their physical worlds are very different, though both good.

Here we can see the philosophical disaster of ignoring or assuming metaphysics. For instance, if we assume philosophical materialism (as is so common today), any approach to morality is necessarily incoherent for in a world of mere atoms, what is there to give any meaning (such as goodness or badness) beyond that. I suppose we can cast some blame on David Hume who claimed that it is illogical to derive an “ought” from an “is.” Unfortunately, I think the opposite, following the tradition of Aquinas and Aristotle that “ought” comes precisely from the “is.”

Christian metaphysics holds that the world is both physical and spiritual, a view which I think is born out by our experience. We all experience the spiritual nature of reality very concretely through our free will. Will and intellect are the spiritual activities that we can perform because we have souls, not just atoms.

As the article’s quotes discuss above, Christian metaphysics makes concern for the poor intelligible. It is sad to me that this is so ignored in some pockets of society.

The purpose of money, from a Christian perspective, is not just to hoard or to purchase leisure goods, but to secure the necessary essentials of a good life for oneself and others. Money is a means, not an end. No amount of dollars in the bank bring happiness or lasting security. As the author notes, security is paradoxically only achieved in the detachment from money and the attachment to other humans that comes from giving the money away.

This is why having a bit more or less than someone else needn’t be cause for embarrassment or awkwardness. We are just two people living life; if we have basic needs met and can help others meet their needs, it’s just numbers in the computer.

Prometheus: Why Aliens Will Never Be Satisfying

There are lots of interpretations of the new Ridley Scott film Prometheus floating around on the web right now. And when my husband couldn’t wait to see it, I saw it with him, now I can contribute to the theories.

The film’s strongest thoughtful element is the android David and his interactions with the other characters as creature to creator. But as interesting as that is, the film remains utterly unsatisfying, not because it doesn’t answer its own questions, but because asking whether aliens created human life is really just a circular question.

As the two lead scientists discuss in the film, if aliens created humanity, it doesn’t necessarily mean there is no God, it just leads to the further question of who created the aliens.

The question of creation just goes back and back and back unless there is a necessary being, one who’s existence is what defines it, one who doesn’t depend on any contingency in order to exist.

Traditionally, this necessary being is how philosophers (since Aristotle) and theologians (since Thomas Aquinas) have described God. Thus the “Well, who created God?” question is answered. God is the one being that exists by definition. The non-contingent being who has the logical power to explain how all these other (temporal, temporary) creatures and things exist.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this metaphysical conception of God is given much thought nowadays, which is really too bad because greater minds than ours have pondered this and found it satisfying. To dismiss the understanding of God as necessary being simply doesn’t give enough credit to the weight of ideas in play.

Now, some people might come to deny such a conclusion, but I hope that before the denial there is more serious thought and effort to understand the metaphysical points than just a quick “well, who created God?”

Turning to aliens, while interesting, does not give the human characters the answers they seek. Dr. Shaw wants to understand why humanity was made. Dr. Holloway doesn’t think it would be sufficient for humans to be a result of “just because they could.”

The beautiful thing is, from the Christian point of view, God, the necessary being who explains existence itself, created all the world and all humanity out of love, not because he had to. Because God is a Trinity of Persons in loving relationship, his goodness overflows and creates. Humans and everything else are loved into existence.

Now isn’t that more satisfying than arbitrary fiat? Or us being the side effect of alien experiments?

We so desperately still desire to know our origin and why things are how they are, to find an explanatory reason. The answers of faith that have been around for millenniums are still really, really good, strong, satisfying answers.

It’s not that people shouldn’t be allowed to consider other possibilities, but I just wish more credit and thought were given to the old answers. If aliens aren’t patently absurd, why would it be absurd to theorize that we have been loved and willed into existence by the necessary being?

All this being said, who doesn’t enjoy a bunch of aliens, robots and slime in space? Thank you, Prometheus!